If you’re in the Southern California area in early June and are a cherry lover, then you need to get yourself to the Leona Valley. See the annual parade and pick your own cherries.
I love it when a plan comes together. More specifically, I love it when a parade, fruit at its peak and cherry picking all converge on the same weekend. I got lucky and timed my visit to the Leona Valley during the perfect trifecta of events.
This may not seem like a difficult feat to pull off, but when you need to pick a date months in advance for a large parade celebrating the cherry, but you don't know when the celebrated cherry will be ready for harvest, there's a lot of luck and blind faith that happens, and sometimes a parade a month in advance of the season.
The year I visited, Leona Valley hit it out of the park, hosting the cherry parade just as cherries were coming into ripeness, and even as some were just wrapping up. This was actually one of the earliest cherry seasons Leona Valley has seen, and I'm glad I got to be a part of it.
Leona Valley is a little over an hour north of downtown Los Angeles, just west of Palmdale. Indians were discovered here in 1776, followed by the Spanish, and both were eventually run out of town.
In the 1800's, sheep and cattle ranches began dotting the hillside and valley, and by 1900, grapes were growing and Germans began arriving to work the land. In 1912, Pie Cherry Ranch planted the namesake fruit and they now see yields of 25-30,000 pounds a year.
I came close to eating my weight in cherries this weekend, but I did try and leave a few for any cherry lovers still looking to pick their own.
Saturday started with a parade down the main road of Leona Valley.
I'm not sure if parade was the right word.
Pageant might have been more appropriate as every young gal in the area seemed to be there with some form of red on with a sash, declaring her title in the fruit fiefdom.
And every parent wore their daughter's title proudly on the side of their car.
Everyone knew each other.
Everyone was asking about each other's land with regard to the fires. They're all fine, in case you were wondering, though it was VERY hot, nearing 100 degrees in the morning.
After all the cherry foreplay, I was ready to get into the trees, and pick my own.
I started at Ambers, who had one of the earliest batches of ripe cherries. Their picking began a week prior on May 25, and when I was there, the cherries were nearly all gone, though I certainly had my chance to fill a bucket, which is the method used when you go wander amongst the fruit bearing trees.
After you fill your bucket, you return to a stand, where your cherries are weighed and placed in a paper bag for you to take home. Most places were selling their cherries for under $4.00 per pound.
I found out the next day that Ambers is now officially closed. All of their cherries were picked in one short week, but stay tuned for their other fruits which should ideally start arriving in July like plums, pears, apples, and grapes.
Needing to do some taste testing, I headed further down the road to the organic farm, Copeland's.
They had just opened their farm the day before for cherry picking.
I had a hard time getting any questions answered at Ambers, but as soon as I started to ask at Copelands, I had many helpers, including the owner, David Copeland, who personally escorted me to his favorite Bing cherries.
They are relative newcomers, having just planted their trees in 2000.
It takes 2 years for a tree to produce cherries, and you have to constantly plant new ones each year to be ready for trees as they die, or fall to frost and other diseases.
Copeland's organic status was achieved in 2008, and was and is, no easy feat.
They do have ducks that help with the weeds, but otherwise, it's a natural orange spray and a lot of prayers.
They sell their cherries to 2 stores only - one locally in Leona, and one to the Santa Monica Coop, which I was happy to hear since I'm a regular there. It's a bit of a crap shoot though, like a boutique wine. If everyone comes to the vineyard and buys the small stock up, there's no need to export or sell the product anywhere else.
Judging by the number of cherries, and the number of people I saw, I wouldn't hold out on seeing these at the market.
Most of the cherry farms, also sell natural honey since bees help take care of the trees.
I then stopped by the Community Center to check out the craft fair they were having, and to learn about the local delicacy of a deep fried cherry burrito.
I asked where it was and I was simply told to head towards the smoke.
I drilled the woman about preparation techniques and was a little crestfallen when she told me it contained cherries jubilee.
They have all these fabulous fresh cherries around them, but they used jarred jubilee in this concoction? It gets worse. The jubilee is placed in a tortilla and then deep fried.
It's dusted with sugar and topped with whipped cream. Ok, so it’s not Tasting Page friendly, but I am all about eating local so I walked to find a seat to eat this processed product. I was encouraged to find the shell light and crisp with a semi-sweet cherry mixture inside that I had expected to be much more gelatinous and syrupy. I guess the low expectations worked out.
I wanted to visit one last orchard before I headed back, so I picked the largest in the valley, Villa del Sol. It feels like the Disneyland of the area with big flags and signs as you enter.
There were displays on the do's and don'ts of picking. Most encourage you to gently pull the cherry off the stem, leaving it on the tree for the next harvest, but you can also use scissors to cut the stem.
Villa del Sol also had warnings against sampling, where the other two places encouraged it. Sampling is pretty important so you know what you're buying.
Also, when you pick a cherry, the ripening stops there, so what you taste is what you get.
I stumbled through the hoards of people, down a marked path roped off, and felt like I was at the commercial conveyer belt of cherry picking.
It's no surprise tour buses come here, and probably no surprise that I didn't find any of the cherries to my liking.
I prefer a more intimate experience, but everyone has their own preference, and if nothing else, Villa del Sol did have a lot of choice and selection for visitors.
Cherry season is only 1-2 weeks long, so if you want fresh cherries, stop reading, and head to Leona Valley now.
Check individual websites to see if they still have cherries to pick this year, and if not, get on their mailing list for next year, so you two can have the perfect trifecta of ripe cherries, a festive parade, and a surprisingly good cherry burrito!